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Should after-hours work emails be banned?

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It’s a beautiful dream, but maybe one that doesn’t need to become a reality in order to effect change.

In 2017, France enacted a law that in effect made after-hours work emails illegal, allowing workers to exercise their “right to disconnect.” In essence, companies (of 50 employees or more) were encouraged to set blackout times after work during which an employee would not be responsible for responding to a email. After reading about this law, I immediately sent the link to a few friends and family members. Not as a real idea to explore, but as an “I wish!” moment and a “not likely to happen here!” statement, and a “look-what-Europeans-who-already-get-months-of-vacation-are-doing-now” comment.

But then, just this past April, a New York City lawmaker proposed a similar law for his city: It would apply to companies of 10 or more people, and if the boss disobeys, the employee can file a complaint leading to a $500 for the company.

So, it’s a global epidemic. Workers everywhere feel tethered to their email.

I thought about it and wondered if there wasn’t something to be said for this radical idea that would ban bosses from reaching out to employees and expecting an answer at night and on weekends. The plan’s supporters want to put the onus on the employers to correct the work-life balance and not on the employees — those at home and desperate to cook dinner or help a child with homework while still frantically trying to put out a fire at work. I get it and I like the idea. It makes sense to give people a break (when they’re supposed to be on a break).

A friend told me she was recently asked on a Saturday night to explain some numbers on a spreadsheet — a spreadsheet she didn’t even have access to at home. Although she knew her boss didn’t need this information immediately, she felt incredible anxiety and guilt for not being able to answer his question on Saturday. So much so that she drove 30 minutes in to work on Sunday to retrieve the file and answer the question. A question that could as easily been answered on Monday. Should that behavior be illegal? Maybe not, but it’s certainly distasteful, and arguably disrespectful.

At the same time, I’ve been saved by after-hours communication. Having been both the boss and the underling, I’ve both requested help and given help after work hours — and I’m glad it wasn’t illegal to do so. The truth is, it can be a real lifesaver and an incredible relief to be able to handle something or solve an issue right away, rather than having it hang over your head until Monday (when it may be too late to fix). This is the beauty of instant messaging and emails. You can be agile and quick.

I’ve also been lucky enough to be in really fun jobs where I felt extremely passionate about what I was doing and where the other creative people around me felt the same way. We often thought about things well outside the parameters of the work day. A weekend trip to a museum, for example, might elicit a quick text messaging session between coworkers to share inspiration. “Look at this great idea,” one of us might say. Does that qualify as a work email? I guess so. Could it have waited until Monday? Sure. But someone was excited and shared. And I think that’s a good thing. Creativity doesn’t punch a clock.

And in some cases not being able to send an after-work email is just bad business. As a Washington Post article on France’s legislation points out, global companies that do business across time zones could suffer from an after-hours ban on emails. A software coder quoted in the article says that his company competes with India, China and the U.S. “We need to talk to people late into the night. If we obeyed this law, we would be shooting ourselves in the foot.” It is important that an employer be able to work in a way that suits the business at hand, or it’s possible that the company at large will suffer.

Instead of laws that might inadvertently hurt us with their inflexibility, why can’t companies be encouraged to decide how to handle work-life balance themselves? Otherwise, I worry that one law might lead to another law: making it illegal for workers to send or receive personal emails during office hours. Then work and life — instead of being balanced — might both come to a grinding halt. Instead of cookie cutter responses, it might be better to find individual solutions to individual problems.

Perhaps even without the laws, conversations like this one will ultimately steer us all toward a better work experience. The legislation in France and the proposed bill in NYC are a sign of the times, when unimportant after-hours work emails may soon be frowned upon and culturally unacceptable, like sending your assistant out to pick up your dry cleaning. Not illegal per se, but just not done.

In fact, a work-life balance is something that younger workers everywhere (not just in Europe) are starting to demand. If good companies want to attract and keep good people, they will find it in their best interest to make room for a balanced work week, but in ways that best suit their employees and individual businesses.

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